I think that in every country and at every age it is lovely to be invited into people’s homes. It means they are inviting you into their lives – the place where they feel safe and are their truest selves.
Most of the young people we know in Chișinău are university students and therefore living in the equivalent of dorms. For this reason, they aren’t especially eager to invite you over to their place in the city. They are much more likely to invite you back to their family’s home in the country. Their eyes light up when they talk about their village and their fruit trees and the way their mom makes zeama (think chicken noodle soup).
Just a couple weekends ago we had the privilege of visiting the family of our friend Alina (*name changed for privacy) in a village southwest of Chișinău. Apparently it was the weekend of Duminica Mare (Pentecost) in the Orthodox Calendar. For lay people, Duminica Mare means celebrating traditional food and customs with your family. We had no idea Alina was at home for a holiday; we thought it was just a regular ‘ole Saturday in the village.
Getting from A to B
Although the invitation was open for the whole weekend, we have become those adults who like the comfort of their own bed and the guarantee of AC at night and coffee in the morning. Therefore, we decided to visit for just one day.
Our friend arrived in her village the day before us and left the day after us, meaning we had to figure out the journey on our own. Because “Ashley’s Car” is no longer with us (RIP), we headed to the southern bus station to catch a Maxi Taxi aka Microbuz aka Rutieră to the village. I think it was something like $2-3 for both of us for a one-way, hour-long trip.
Maxi Taxi Time
Fortunately, we bought tickets early enough that we were guaranteed seats in the Maxi Taxi. Unfortunately, there was no AC and a forecasted temperature of ~88 F.
For the first part of the trip, we didn’t stop at all. However, the closer we got to Alina’s village, the more frequent our stops became. People were hopping on and off more like we were in the city, rather than on a long-distance route. What started as a couple people standing in the aisle turned into 6+ people standing in the aisle. In fact, Daniel stood up after a young man with cerebral palsy (I’m guessing at that diagnosis) got on board and it was clear that standing for long periods of time would be difficult for him. After him a heavily pregnant woman got on and there was once again a shuffling of people.
As you can see, I (as the more delicate sex – written with both a cringe and laugh) remained seated while Daniel stood up. Our friend Alina telephoned us constantly as we approached her village. She wanted to know what side of the bus we were on, at what time we arrived in the closest major town, when we left that same town, etc. Every couple of minutes she called and I passed my phone to Daniel for optimum Romanian communication. With Alina’s instructions and the kindness of helpful passengers, we arrived at our stop and disembarked, the only passengers to do so there.
When Neighbors are Taxi Drivers
Once off the Maxi Taxi, we spoke to Alina (again) and she told us to wait in the shade. A few minutes later she came speeding up, herself a passenger in a car that has seen A LOT of wear. Apparently her village is actually 3 km away from the bus route, and she had paid her neighbor to come pick us up in his car. Alina’s family does not own a car.
I must say that although the drive to the village was quick, it was memorable. The main road in the village had become deep mud after rains the day before. I never realized that driving through mud is like driving through snow. Accelerate before the snow (mud), not in the midst of the ice patch (mud patch.) If you are Moldovan, this means accelerate INTENSELY and then jerk the steering wheel back and forth as the tires catch in the ruts. There was only one time I was certain we were going to spin out of control.
Impressions of Village Life
My impression of village life is that it is richly connected to the land around it and completely lacking in pretentiousness. When we arrived, Alina led us straight to the outdoor kitchen in the back where we met her parents. They were lovely and smiling, despite the heat outside. Her dad wasn’t wearing a shirt; her mom’s face was bright red and had bangs plastered to her forehead.
They managed to make us feel welcome and comfortable at the same time. It’s refreshing to go into a house and be pulled into the family affairs rather than to be treated daintily like outsiders. We received a tour of the huge garden and helped pick grape leaves for the sarmale. And of course we took some pictures. Our friend Alina is the selfie queen. I have unbeknownst to her declared myself an apprentice of her selfie methods.
After a tour of the fruits and veggies came a tour of the animals. Alina’s family owns pigs, ducks, chickens, a dog, a puppy, a cat…..and brand-spankin’-new kittens! As in kittens so new that they couldn’t even walk. They crawled around on the sofa and mostly curled up next to Daniel to sleep.
The day would have been amazing even without the little furry bundles of happiness incarnate. But just look at their faces and their sleepy little eyes!! As my body melted in the heat, my heart melted right along with it.
Mamma Cat alternated between “very concerned” and “couldn’t care less.” Part of the the time her and the puppy watched us from beneath the table. Unlike the kittens, Mamma and Puppy kept their distance from the snuggling.
Legit Farm to Table
I am so insanely impressed by Alina’s family, and her mom in particular. Their life is truly organic and truly local, and not because they are trendy or worried about the environment, but because that is village life. And let me tell you, it seems like a ton of work. They grow their own vegetables, raise their own chickens and then slaughter them, get flour from the mill located in their village. Alina’s mom made freaking 10+ loaves of bread from scratch and baked them in wood burning oven called a soba. (!!!)
And what is more, she willingly let me slow her down as she showed me how to roll sarmale in both cabbage and grape leaves. Like every little kid the world over, I was learning how to cook from an experienced lady. It was maybe just a tad pathetic seeing as I am a 31 year old. [I often want to reassure Moldovans that I’m not so helpless in America as I might come across here in Moldova.]
Friendships that humble you
I left our visit with a weightiness. Not because it was difficult. In fact it was the opposite! We filled our bellies with delicious food, laughed heartily over a game of Phase 10, and Daniel even fell asleep after the meal on the parent’s bed in the main room. It was that kind of house – the one where you feel comfortable enough to take a nap on your first visit.
The heaviness for me comes from feeling undeserving of such generosity and unsure of how to pay it back – either to this family in particular or to the universe at large. I’ve felt this way before. I received a use car for free from family friends when I had my first job out of college and needed transportation. My college roommate’s parents gave me a huge financial gift at graduation knowing that I had many student loans to pay.
Obviously, these acts of kindness have stayed with me – maybe because they were large gifts. Now, a day in the village is not generous on the same scale. But it is monumental when I consider the coffers from which it came. What is more, Alina’s parents didn’t know us before this visit. We are friends with their daughter, but we haven’t built any relational equity with them in particular. Yet, at our departure, they gave us fresh baked bread and home grown zucchini. And they would have given more if we had let them.
And Questions That Haunt You
These are good, hard-working people doing their best in a life that certainly has not been easy.
Lately I am crippled by doubt and indecision as I consider how my life should look after our time in Moldova. Would it be easier with limited choices: living like a Moldovan villager and making the best of whatever life I received? For certainly I have seen that that life can be rich and lovely.
Or is it best to embrace the burden of prosperity and nearly limitless choice, constantly analyzing my decisions, their motives, and the ramifications?
Is it better to have a big world or a small world?
I suppose either, as long as it comes with an expansive heart and a willingness to meet others where they are at. And dear American friends, please do meet me where I’m at with these questions that have been pondered by all cultural travelers before me. I know without a doubt that I am not unique in my internal conflict.
Let’s end with something lighter…
Enough of the pretend philosophy on my part. Let me finish with a story that I think you might enjoy. Except Dad (as in Paul): If you are reading this, stop reading now. I don’t think you’ll like this story.
Our journey back to Chișinău was not the same adventure we had in coming. No – we did not journey by crowded, crazy-hot Maxi Taxi because we missed the last taxi that night. And no – we did not go with the neighbor driver in his well-worn and mud-splattered car. He told us he doubted the car would make it there and back.
Instead, we opted for the culturally acceptable transportation of….Dad stop reading now if you haven’t already!!!….hitch-hiking. I swore I would never do it. And yet, here I am: alive and well and slightly less judgy about hitch-hiking…but only in this country where my feelings and emotions and ideas are always changing.